* Brazil, Norway require rigs to have shut-off triggers
* US does not require shut-off triggers; some use them
* $500,000 cost may seem more affordable after this spill
By Tom Doggett and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON, May 3 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are focusing on whether lax government regulation that did not require BP to use a remote control “trigger” to shut an underwater pipe exacerbated the spreading oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
A $500,000 acoustic trigger may have allowed workers escaping from the burning rig by boat to send a remote signal 5,000 feet below the water’s surface to close the valve and stop the oil.
Instead, BP (BP.L) is using submersible robots, whose tiny metal arms so far have been unable to move the lever that would cut off the flow of crude.
BP’s ruptured well is still spewing about 5,000 barrels a day, nearly two weeks after its rig exploded. The massive spill is bearing down on the rich fishing grounds and tourist beaches of the Gulf Coast.
The Interior Department, which oversees offshore energy exploration, does not require acoustic triggers in deepwater drilling.
Oil producing countries such as Norway and Brazil require the triggers and some oil companies find the device so vital that they voluntarily include it on equipment when exploring for oil in the U.S. Gulf.
Some lawmakers say it’s time for the United States to make the remote shut-off valves mandatory.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida on Monday asked the Interior Department’s inspector general to investigate whether regulations covering back-up systems to cap underwater wells were adequate. He also wants to know if energy companies have lobbied to soften rules.
“I ask that you determine in your investigation the extent to which the oil and natural gas industry exercised influence in the agency’s rule making process,” Nelson said.
Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Investigations Reform Committee is also investigating and wants to know why the Interior Department has not mandated the shut-off switches.
Interior does not require the acoustic valves because they have not been “fully proven or they haven’t been deemed reliable,” a department spokesman said.
A report commissioned by the department Minerals Management Service in 2003 said that remote acoustic systems were useful when the primary shut-off pipe device has failed and are also useful in depths greater than 10,000 feet.
However, the report said the acoustic system may not work well if the underwater well has significant oil flow.
The report also said other problems can occur that would prevent the remote trigger from working such as loud noises or a mud cloud on the sea floor caused by an accident.
One petroleum geologist at a company operating in the Gulf said an acoustic trigger would not have worked in this case because the control box on the sea floor was probably broken.
“You could have had 20 of the acoustic activation devices on 20 boats, circulating that rig,” said the geologist, who did not want to be identified. “It’s probably because something is broken in the control box that would activate it or there is something in the way.”
Meanwhile the oil industry may soon find the cost of acoustic triggers more affordable, compared with the cost of fighting an oil spill. Legislation was proposed in the Senate to raise the limit on oil company liability for spill damages from $75 million to $10 billion.
“There is no such thing as a ‘Too Big to Spill’ oil well, which is why we need this economic protection in place,” said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. It is unclear whether the legislation will be backed by Senate leadership.
Environmental lawyer Mike Papantonio, whose firm has filed a class action suit on behalf of Gulf Coast fishermen, said the triggers are a fail-safe protection against spills.
President Barack Obama has ordered U.S. Interior Secretary Salazar to report in 30 days on the possible cause of the rig explosion and what new regulations may be required.
Congress, however, will get an opportunity on May 11 Thursday to press the administration on what went wrong as Salazar is scheduled to testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where the need for emergency shut-off systems is expected to be discussed.
BP officials are also scheduled to brief House lawmakers this Tuesday about the oil spill.
Editing by Russell Blinch and David Gregorio